Countdown to bittersweet Sugar Bowl for the Crimson Tide

Nick Saban urged Alabama's players to not "waste a failure" when remembering the Tide's loss.

Don't miss WAAY 31's special report All Access Alabama: Tide and Tigers tonight at 6:30

Posted: Jan 1, 2018 11:13 AM
Updated: Jan 1, 2018 5:59 PM

(Alex Scarborough, ESPN & ABC News)  Tonight, Alabama faces Clemson in the 2018 Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

WAAY 31's Special Contributor Erin Dacy along with sports anchor MaryLee Adams will host our All Access Alabama: Tide and Tigers special. Watch it tonight at 6:30 live from the Sugar Bowl. It's brought to you by your North Alabama Honda dealers and Window World.

Clemson and Alabama will have their CFP rematch in the Sugar Bowl

Alabama has something to prove tonight in the Big Easy. At the Sugar Bowl, it's not all sweet. A bitter defeat at the hands of Clemson will surely be on the minds of Crimson Tide players.

As a freshman, Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts perfected the art of hiding his emotions. Last season, he led the Crimson Tide to 13 straight wins as a starter and was named SEC Offensive Player without exhibiting so much as a hint of joy.

So it made sense that Hurts absorbed his first defeat in the same manner he handled all the success that came before -- calmly and without wavering.

"You never want to be on this end of it, but today we are," Hurts said after Alabama lost to Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship in January. "My sophomore season starts tomorrow."

Hurts' comments stood in stark contrast to the reaction of his teammates to the Tide's first loss in 26 games. Linebacker Rashaan Evans told reporters it felt "like a death in the family." Cornerback Marlon Humphrey wore dark sunglasses to hide his eyes. He thought the game was won after Hurts' touchdown run put Alabama ahead by three points with a little more than two minutes remaining. Clemson scored the game-winning touchdown with one second left to win 35-31.

"It's crazy," Humphrey said, shaking his head.

Alabama coach Nick Saban told his players not to let one game define their season, but how could they, in that moment, not feel as if all was lost?

Hurts projected calm as he answered reporters' questions. If anything, he thought that Alabama might have scored too fast. "But," he said, "sometimes it rolls like that. You can only control what you can control."

He didn't get emotional. But make no mistake, he felt it. He listened as defensive end Jonathan Allen told Alabama players returning next season: "Remember this feeling. Use it as fuel."

Saban would later ask his team not to seek revenge. That felt too negative, too destructive. Instead, he hoped, "We won't waste a failure."

So Hurts put a reminder of the loss in his pocket. He set the lock screen on his iPhone to an image of Clemson hoisting the national

Later, when he got a new phone, he set a new image, though this time it was a picture of him after the loss walking off a field of confetti. His helmet rested atop his head as a public relations staff member guided him toward the locker room, a thousand-yard stare across his face.

It wasn't about keeping a grudge, Hurts explained, but rather a reminder to stay humble and motivated.

"It's something that keeps it on the back of your [mind]. Like, 'Yeah, it's still there. Remember why you're doing this.'"

Alabama will get its rematch with Clemson in the College Football Playoff at the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Crimson Tide had a constant opponent on their way to a fourth straight playoff appearance. Whether they were playing Ole Miss, Tennessee or Texas A&M, in the back of their minds, it was always Clemson.

The first month of Alabama's season felt like a cakewalk. It was almost cruel how lopsided the Tide's wins were, outscoring opponents by an average of 31 points per game. That is, until you understood why.

In the midst of cruising to a win over Ole Miss at home on Sept. 30, defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick felt the need to say something. It didn't matter that Alabama was ahead 35-3 at halftime. He could sense that his teammates were letting up. He reminded them of the loss to Clemson in the title game, how they didn't finish what they started and how it cost them everything. No lead was safe.

"Don't let them breathe," Fitzpatrick told them. "Don't let them have any moments to relax. Don't take any plays off."

The Tide beat the Rebels 66-3 without allowing a single third-down conversion (0-for-13). Fitzpatrick finished with a team-high eight tackles, including a sack.

"It's all about us finishing and dominating the whole game from the first quarter all the way to the last," Fitzpatrick said after the game.

It became the theme of the Tide's season.

On the road against Texas A&M a week later, cornerback Levi Wallace started having flashbacks as the Aggies cut into Alabama's lead. It didn't matter that the Tide still led by eight points or that Texas A&M would need an onside kick, followed by a Hail Mary, followed by a two-point conversion just to tie the game. It didn't matter that Alabama would go on to win to improve to 6-0.

In that moment, Wallace felt a familiar sense of despair.

"That struck a nerve with us because we didn't finish against Clemson," Wallace said. "We always want to finish, that's what we preach."

Evans felt the specter of Clemson against Tennessee. Even as the Tide led the Vols 38-7, a defensive stand inside their 5-yard line felt like deja vu. It felt like the end of the national championship, he said: Alabama ahead 31-28, Clemson on the 2-yard line with seconds remaining.

"We just went back to Clemson," Evans said, "and we just wanted to stop them on the goal line."

And that they did. Tennessee decided to go for it on fourth down. But instead of Watson rolling out and finding Hunter Renfrow for the game-winning score, Evans put a vicious spin move on the left tackle and hurried quarterback Jarrett Guarantano into an interception.

"After that, it was ballgame," Evans said.

He added: "[Clemson] was in our minds. Anytime we get in a situation like that, we want to do a great job of finishing."
There it was again: finishing.

Alabama learned a hard lesson in its loss to Clemson -- how a national championship and everything that went with it could be lost in an instant.

When Saban thinks back to the loss, he doesn't point to Renfrow's touchdown as the be-all and end-all. Rather, he said, "It's what led up to the last play."

It was a busted coverage that led to a score. It was a false start to begin a drive and far too many three-and-outs. It was a defender out of position, a pass interference, and only then the game-winning touchdown.

When defensive backs Marlon Humphrey, Anthony Averett and Fitzpatrick chatted on the phone, they blamed themselves.

"They talk about it all the time," said Humphrey, who entered the NFL draft after the loss and is in his rookie season with the Baltimore Ravens. "We felt like the secondary kind of let it up at the end. So it's fueled them a lot."

The day after the loss to Clemson, Fitzpatrick watched a replay of the game multiple times. He saw a defense that was tired and stopped executing as it should.

Then, he said, he switched his mindset and started thinking about the future and how the Tide needed to work to avoid fatigue.

"Some guys took a little bit longer than others," Fitzpatrick said. "Some guys played really well, so it kind of didn't stick around too long, and other guys who didn't play well, it kind of hit them harder. But everybody learned from the game, and that's the most important thing."

Said Evans: "Oh, it's always a motivation. You don't want to harp on the past too much, but you want it to be a good reminder of what can happen if you don't play your best game."

It wasn't just the defense that carried around the memories of Clemson. The offense felt it, too -- Hurts, in particular, who was the object of intense criticism after the loss.

While it was undeniable that there were areas of Hurts' game that needed to improve, particularly his passing from the pocket, it was also impossible to overlook how differently he would have been viewed if Alabama had held on to win the national championship. If the final moment of the game was Hurts' go-ahead touchdown run, he'd have been hailed as a hero.

Instead, Hurts has carried an image of the game in his pocket as a reminder. Ten games into his sophomore season, he got some measure of redemption.

On the road at Mississippi State on Nov. 11, Alabama's offense was on the ropes. The Bulldogs were blitzing nonstop, and the offensive line was struggling to keep up. The running game couldn't get going, and Hurts had no time to throw the ball.

That changed after he orchestrated a 10-play, 82-yard, game-tying drive in the fourth quarter. Later in the quarter, after the defense forced a three-and-out, giving the Tide's offense the ball back with chance to win the game, Hurts took stock of the situation.

"Initially," he said. "I walked onto the field and looked at the scoreboard to see how much time we had left, and it was 1:09. And I couldn't help but think of the national championship game, where we came up short last year.

"Deshaun Watson had 1:09 left in the game and he went down and scored, and we ended up doing the same."
With 25 seconds remaining, Hurts found DeVonta Smith on the slant for the game-winning touchdown.

Asked about players harkening back to Clemson, Saban called the loss "something you never forget."

"If that's something that helps guys not want to have that feeling again, that's not a bad thing," he said.

After losing to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, it appeared Alabama might get left out of the playoff and miss its opportunity for a rematch with Clemson. The Tide were saved when the selection committee took them over Big Ten champion Ohio State.

During a team meeting on Selection Day, Saban shared a familiar lesson: "Because we didn't finish the season the way we wanted to finish the season and didn't play the way we'd like to play or to the standard that we'd like to play to, we put our fate in someone else's hands."

A year ago, Alabama didn't finish the job, and Clemson made it pay the price. The feeling of Watson throwing that touchdown and the memories of the mood in the locker room afterward will last a lifetime.

When the moment called for it, players went back to that time and drew inspiration.
Now, the moment for redemption is here.

According to running back Damien Harris, Clemson has become something of Alabama's rival these past three years. He said everyone is "definitely looking to avenge our loss from last year."

"This is the third round," Fitzpatrick said. "It might not be the championship, but it's a championship-caliber game. It's been a heavyweight fight since my freshman season."

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